Meet Your New Coworker
Industrial robots are reshaping manufacturing
It would be tough to find a company seemingly more evocative of 20th-century, "old economy" America than Allied-Locke Industries. The family-owned-and-run manufacturing firm is headquartered about 100 miles due west of Chicago in rural Dixon, Ill.--the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan. It sits right there on Corregidor Road, named after the Philippines island fortress where outnumbered American forces fiercely resisted the invading Japanese in the early months of World War II.
No one walking onto Allied-Locke's low-light, high-decibel factory floor is going to mistake the place for the clean room at a semiconductor manufacturing plant. Allied's operations appear about as unglamorous and low tech as one might expect at a maker of chains and sprockets--except, that is, for a smattering of robots.
Although the pervasive grease and grime make these computerized machines with their articulated arms look like they originally came with the place, the robots--all adorned with user-friendly female names like "Heidi"--are relative newcomers at the 300-employee firm. About four years ago, the company picked up four used robots (they formerly resided in a now shuttered Caterpillar plant) to assist in the heated hardening of pins that help form the links in its chains.
"The machinery dealer wanted something like $60,000 or $70,000 for them, but we haggled them down to $40,000," says Jeff Shoemaker, an industrial engineer who heads four divisions at the firm. "That still may seem like a lot, but with the rising cost of health insurance for our employees, the cost of a robot is pretty easily justified."
Those four robots--along with seven more purchased since then for various tasks such as welding and loading--have allowed Allied-Locke to get more production out of the same number of workers. And that has helped it avoid new hiring. That sort of situation represents the other face of the well-publicized issue of America's declining manufacturing employment. If American workers aren't losing jobs making Nike sneakers to Vietnamese workers, then they are losing out to machines as companies look to increase productivity. "The state of manufacturing in the United States in terms of production is just fine," says Tapan Munroe, chief economist for the Capital Corp of the West. "But thanks to automation, we need fewer workers to make the same product."
As the saying goes in manufacturing, "automate or evaporate." And robots represent the cutting edge of automation technology in the United States. While Japan is often thought of as most adept at the use of robots, America is now a top market for them. In 2003, North American manufacturing companies shelled out $877 million for robots--up 19 percent over 2002, and the industry's best mark since 2000. "It's encouraging to see the robotics industry approaching the figures we hit prior to the double whammy of the economic slowdown of 2001-2002 and the impact of 9/11," says Donald Vincent, executive vice president of the Robotic Industries Association.
Materials handling (moving stuff around factories) remains the largest application for robots, followed by spot welding. The automotive industry is still the biggest robot user, ordering nearly two thirds of robots last year. But when they were first introduced in the early 1960s, "they were good for the three `D' kinds of jobs," says Steve Holland, chief scientist for manufacturing at GM. "Jobs that were dirty, difficult, and dangerous."
Today, robots are more fully integrated into all aspects of the manufacturing process, including parts installation. At GM's Grand River plant in Lansing, Mich., robots are distributed throughout the assembly line, automatically aligning themselves (thanks to a bar code on the car body) depending on which of three different kinds of Cadillac shells is coming down the line. Using C-Flex, a programmable robot that can perform different tasks, such as welding multiple body panels, means a plant can build different models of cars for less money using less space. "C-Flex allows us to add models and evolve the plant as time goes on," says Holland.
Robots are also being used more and more in lighter industry such as consumer electronics and food packaging. "The precision and quality assembly performed by a robot just far outweighs what a human laborer can do by hand," says John Dulchinos, vice president of sales at robot manufacturer Adept Technology in Livermore, Calif. In the cookie industry, for instance, snacks are usually baked, cooled, and moved on 3-to-4-foot-wide conveyor belts at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 cookies a minute. For sandwich-type cookies like Oreos, half the belt has tops and half the belt has bottoms. Thanks to advances in machine vision, robots from Adept can spot where the tops and bottoms of the cookies are on the belt. The robot then tracks the moving conveyor belt and picks up the tops and places them onto the bottoms while the cookies are moving. Robots farther down the conveyor line pick up the assembled cookies and place them into trays. Robots do these tasks at a rate of 75 to 125 cookies a minute.
Then there are services. Automated teller machines and self-service checkout lines are only the beginning. McDonald's has been testing a high-tech grill complete with a robotic burger-flipping machine. InTouch Health, a Goleta, Calif.- based robotics firm, is trying out "companion" bots that scoot around unassisted in long-term-care communities and hospitals. Rigged with a video screen and camera, they allow two-way telecom links between patients, nurses, and off-site physicians. At Valparaiso University, half the library's collection is being placed in steel bins so robot arms can pluck books off the shelves and then drop them off at a station where human librarians can pick them up. Shoppers may soon encounter warehouse stores where the widespread use of radio frequency identification tags on products could enable robots to shelve or grab items at a Home Depot or a Costco.
Humanoid boogie. More and more, robots will interact with people. Carnegie Mellon University has developed the world's first robot receptionist. With its ability to detect motion, the device senses and greets visitors. And if receptionists become a victim of robotics, office clerks might not be far behind. Robotics expert Dick Slansky of the ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass., thinks that Honda's much hyped humanoid-looking, Gary Coleman-size Asimo robot could end up being a prototype for a generation of gofer robots with good eye-hand coordination. Such machines will "be given simple tasks like fetching things and moving things, leaving humans to do administrative tasks," he says.
Of course, all this leads to the obvious question that workers have been ask- ing since the late 1700s: "Will machines steal all our jobs?" Back in 1779, Ned Lud started the antiautomation movement that later came to be known as Luddism by breaking into factories in Nottingham, England, and destroying the new weaving machines that were replacing workers. Marshall Brain, founder of the popular online encyclopedia HowStuffWorks.com, has written an influential online manifesto called "Robotic Nation" in which he concludes that the greater presence of robots in the workplace will lead to massive unemployment over the coming decades. "The jobless recovery is exactly what you would expect in a robotic nation," he writes.
Most economists dispute this scenario. As James Miller, economics professor at Smith College, explains it, the law of supply and demand says that firms will replace workers with robots only if the robots are cheaper to employ. But if robots displace enough workers, the laws of supply and demand will cause their wages to fall, meaning it will no longer be cheaper for the firms to replace them. "True, the existence of automation might depress workers' wages," Miller adds, "but it shouldn't ever leave them unemployable."
Still, just in case, it might be a good idea to add a fourth law to sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's famous "three laws" of robotics (featured in his short story collection, I, Robot, the filmed version of which is coming to theaters later this year). Asimov's laws specify that robots must never hurt humans; robots must listen to humans; robots must protect themselves. Law No. 4: Robots should not steal human jobs--at least not all of them.
This story appears in the March 15, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.